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Gandhis, BJP, divisive nationalism: What Barack Obama says about India in memoir

Obama's latest memoir 'A Promise Land' includes a vivid description of his first visit to India in 2010 and his growing concern about the rise of the “divisive nationalism touted by the BJP".

By: Express Web Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: November 18, 2020 9:50:00 pm
barack obama, a promised land, rahul gandhi, manmohan singh, sonia gandhi, barack obama new book, indian expressObama said Gandhi is 'like a student eager to impress the teacher but lacking aptitude and passion to master the subject'. (Photo: Twitter/@RahulGandhi)

Former US President Barack Obama’s latest memoir ‘A Promise Land’ caused ripples across India even before it hit bookstores on Tuesday. His unflattering first impression of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and admiration and respect for former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stirred a storm on social media last week, with several prominent leaders weighing in on Obama’s comments.

The book, which is the first of two volumes, traces Obama’s political career until the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. It also includes a vivid description of his first visit to India in 2010 and his growing concern about the “divisive nationalism touted by the BJP”. The former President has also written about how Mahatma Gandhi — along with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln — influenced his thinking.

“I had never been to India before. But the country had always  held a special place in my imagination,” Obama wrote. “Maybe it was because I’d spent a part of my childhood in Indonesia listening to the epic Hindu tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or because of my interest in Eastern religions, or because of a group of Pakistani and Indian college friends who’d taught me to cook dahl and keema and turned me on to Bollywood movies.”

Here is everything Obama said about India in his memoir

Rahul Gandhi has ‘a nervous, unformed quality about him’

Describing his first interaction with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Obama said that he “seemed smart and earnest, his good looks resembling his mother’s.” Gandhi discussed his thoughts on the “future of progressive politics” and asked Obama about his experience campaigning for President in 2008.

But he went on to add that there was a “nervous, unformed quality about him”. “As if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject,” Obama wrote.

Sonia Gandhi’s power ‘attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence’

In his memoir, Obama extensively praised Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s beauty. “We are told of the handsomeness of men like Charlie Crist and Rahm Emanuel, but not the beauty of women, except for one or two instances, as in the case of Sonia Gandhi,” he wrote.

He described her as a “striking woman in her sixties, dressed in a traditional sari, with dark, probing eyes and a quiet, regal presence.”

Commenting on Sonia’s role in upholding the Gandhi legacy, he added: “That she — a former stay-at-home mother of European descent — had emerged from her grief after her husband was killed by a Sri Lankan separatist’s suicide bomb in 1991 to become a leading national politician testified to the enduring power of the family dynasty.”

“It became clear to me, though, that her power was attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence,” he wrote.

Manmohan Singh was ‘wise, thoughtful and scrupulously honest’

Former President Obama said he was able to develop a warm and productive relationship with Manmohan Singh over the years. He lavished praised on the former PM, calling him a man of “uncommon wisdom and decency”.

“Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, meanwhile, had engineered the modernisation of his nation’s economy,” Obama wrote. He said that he found Singh to be “wise, thoughtful and scrupulously honest”.

Recalling his first visit to India in 2010, Obama said that Singh had expressed fears about the rising “anti-Muslim sentiment” that had strengthened the influence of the BJP. “‘In uncertain times, Mr. President,’ the prime minister (Manmohan Singh) said, ‘the call of religious and ethnic solidarity can be intoxicating. And it’s not so hard for politicians to exploit that, in India or anywhere else,’” he recollected.

Obama’s fears about India’s future

Obama called modern-day India a success story for surviving “repeated changeovers in government, bitter feuds within political parties, various armed separatist movements, and all manner of corruption scandals”. But he pointed out that the India of today, which is rife with inequality and violence, bore little resemblance to the society Gandhi had envisioned.

He raised concerns about the rise of a “divisive nationalism touted by the BJP” after Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister was completed. “Would the baton be successfully passed to Rahul, fulfilling the destiny laid out by his mother and preserving the Congress Party’s dominance over the divisive nationalism touted by the BJP?” he asked. His visit to India also made him question whether impulses of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism and religious intolerance “were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.”

“For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments,” Obama wrote.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not find mention in the first volume of Obama’s memoir, he is likely to include his first impression of Modi in his subsequent book.

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